Shockingly funny! Wait, is it okay to laugh?
Every time I think, “oh, no one’s going to be at the movies this late,” or, “it’s been out for so long, there’s no way it’ll be full of people,” the theatre is always PACKED. I’ve come to discover that the more full the theatre is, the worse mood I’m in. There’s a higher chance someone will be annoyed by my note-taking, the munching and crunching of my snacks sounds louder than a Def Leppard concert, and I’m always afraid someone will ask me to move out of my comfy back corner seat so that they can sit with their kids. Children: Ruining movie theatre experiences since 1905. Taking all of that into consideration, I was worried that my awful mood would taint my viewing of Ben Is Back (2018) forcing me to write a review that was unfairly negative. Plot twist, not only was that not the case, I ended up loving Ben Is Back and can hardly think of anything negative to say about it.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, Ben Is Back follows recovering drug addict Ben Burns, played by Lucas Hedges, as he returns home to spend Christmas Eve with his family. His mother Holly, played by Julia Roberts, though ecstatic to have her son home for the holiday, demands that he remain by her side for the 24 hours he is home.
I was hesitant about reviewing this movie. It’s not on many people’s radar, it’s not playing in many theatres, and I’ve already reviewed a couple of movies that depict the struggle of addiction. However, one thing, or rather two things, changed my mind: The father and son team of Peter and Lucas Hedges. I’m not very familiar with Peter Hedges directorial work, but he is responsible for writing and directing one of my all-time favourite movies, Dan in Real Life (2007). That’s reason enough to see anything he does. Also, yes, I know I’m talking about Dan in Real Life again, but it’s just so good you guys. To my pleasant surprise, Hedges crafts a gritty drama that is just as enjoyable and well-made as his comedic work. His writing is as sharp as ever, especially the dialogue which is utterly realistic and unexpectedly humourous. Unexpected in that I didn’t think this drama about drug addiction would have laugh-out-loud funny moments. Regardless, it’s a welcome addition. The comedy ranges from lighthearted quips any family can relate to, to dark humour that you’ll find weirdly funny. There’s also comedy during the movie’s most tense, heart-wrenching moments and yet, it doesn’t feel weird or out of place. It feels wholly human and how you’d react if you were in the same situation. More than anything, Hedges knows how to write a story central to family, regardless of genre, and he does so flawlessly. Perhaps the importance he places on family is what led to the casting of his son Lucas in the title role.
Lucas Hedges. Not only has he been newly christened as one of my favourite actors, but he’s at the top of my list of “people I will go to the movies for.” Once again, Hedges finds himself in a dramatic leading role that he absolutely knocks out of the park. His performance as Ben is so compelling and so earnest, that you can’t help but root for him and hope that he can resist the temptation of using again. Hedges never fails to amaze me. In his short career he’s already played a wide range of roles, each time transforming himself to the point were it’s hard to imagine any other actor playing the part. With Ben Is Back and Boy Erased (2018) – which you can read my review for here – Hedges proves that his dramatic chops are unparalleled, but in 2019 I’m really hoping that he’s given the chance to flex his comedic muscles. During the sparse comedic scenes in Ben Is Back, you get the sense that Hedges has a natural gift for making people laugh, and would only thrive in a witty, smartly-written comedy. Do you hear that Peter Hedges? Please hear my plea, get to typing, and turn your son into a comedy superstar! The best part of Hedges’ performance by far though is his chemistry with Julia Roberts.
I’ve honestly never been a huge fan of Julia Roberts. She’s an undeniably great actress and I’ve enjoyed her movies, but I’ve never been in total awe of her. That may have changed with her performance in Ben Is Back. As Ben’s mother Holly, Roberts takes a role that many actresses would dread, “suburban mom,” and delivers a tour-de-force that wont just tug at your heartstrings but pull them clean out of your body. Too much? Sorry, but that’s how great Roberts’ performance is. She grounds Holly with a sense of realism that is relatable for audiences and allows them to see glimpses of their own mothers presented onscreen. Simultaneously incredibly forgiving and justifiably harsh, Holly’s faith in Ben is unwavering. It’s incredible and sure to hit you right in the feels as your heart breaks for a woman who desperately wants to believe that this time, things have changed for the better. As the story grows more dire, and lesser women would have crumbled, Holly stands firm as she proves her undying devotion to caring for a son she loves more than anything in the world. Roberts’ days as a rom-com queen are seemingly behind her but if more gripping projects like Ben Is Back are on the horizon, than count me the fuck in. Runaway Bride (1999) is still a lot of fun though, not gonna lie.
Ben Is Back begins as a touching and gritty mother-son drama and quickly escalates into a high-stakes thriller. The second act is so tense that I was literally on the edge of my seat. No, LITERALLY. The subtle blend of comedy and drama are what anchor the movie, and what strengthens it is the captivating chemistry between Hedges and Roberts. They play off each other so well that I get a sense of history from them, almost buying that they are truly mother and son. Finally, I have to give props to this movie for its great ending. Without spoiling anything, I thoroughly enjoyed that it wasn’t a happy Hollywood ending, or a grim, dramatic twist. It’s simply real. It’s an ending that makes sense for the story the movie is telling, something not enough movies take into consideration. I loved this movie and if you’re lucky enough to live near one of the three theatres it’s still playing in, you should definitely check it out.
Will you try to see Ben Is Back?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!